Parts of the Gurlitt collection are likely of dubious provenance.
But why were they restored at all to an art dealer who had worked for the Nazis? DW asked two founders of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project. One side to the story that has largely escaped scrutiny, however, is the role of Allied occupation authorities after World War II. After all, they were nominally responsible for ensuring that art looted by the Nazis was returned to its proper owners in the first place. Rightly or wrongly, the state prosecutor in the city of Augsburg has come under criticism for the length of time between the seizure, which was only made public by a German news magazine at the start of this month, and initial attempts to restore the artworks to their legitimate owners.
But questions should also be asked as to how Germany’s post-war occupiers could have allowed Hildebrand Gurlitt – one of the leading art dealers in the Third Reich – to amass a collection including works by Chagall, Matisse, Picasso, and Dix and then pass that trove on to his son Cornelius.
“I’m astonished at how quickly the Allied forces in charge of collection points for plundered art were to return it to whoever claimed it,” Ori Soltes, an art professor at Georgetown University and a co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), told DW. “There was even a case of art being given to a man claiming to represent Yugoslavia who was in fact just a private collector.” “It seems as though the Monuments Men were not overly careful about who they handed works back to,” Soltes concluded. Thus, it is eminently possible that Hildebrand Gurlitt might not have been the legitimate owner of all the works in his collection. Some of the pieces may have been plundered or acquired by coercion; they may have been works Gurlitt Senior acquired in his position as an official art procurer for the Third Reich; or he may have simply said he owned works which he in fact did not. There’s also the possibility that he legitimately made the purchases in good faith without knowing where the art had come from. In the confusion following World War, almost anything was possible – in part because the global art market played along.